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An essay by Jerome K Jerome

Is The American Husband Made Entirely Of Stained Glass

Title:     Is The American Husband Made Entirely Of Stained Glass
Author: Jerome K Jerome [More Titles by Jerome]

I am glad I am not an American husband. At first sight this may appear a remark uncomplimentary to the American wife. It is nothing of the sort. It is the other way about. We, in Europe, have plenty of opportunity of judging the American wife. In America you hear of the American wife, you are told stories about the American wife, you see her portrait in the illustrated journals. By searching under the heading "Foreign Intelligence," you can find out what she is doing. But here in Europe we know her, meet her face to face, talk to her, flirt with her. She is charming, delightful. That is why I say I am glad I am not an American husband. If the American husband only knew how nice was the American wife, he would sell his business and come over here, where now and then he could see her.

Years ago, when I first began to travel about Europe, I argued to myself that America must be a deadly place to live in. How sad it is, I thought to myself, to meet thus, wherever one goes, American widows by the thousand. In one narrow by-street of Dresden I calculated fourteen American mothers, possessing nine-and-twenty American children, and not a father among them--not a single husband among the whole fourteen. I pictured fourteen lonely graves, scattered over the United States. I saw as in a vision those fourteen head-stones of best material, hand-carved, recording the virtues of those fourteen dead and buried husbands.

Odd, thought I to myself, decidedly odd. These American husbands, they must be a delicate type of humanity. The wonder is their mothers ever reared them. They marry fine girls, the majority of them; two or three sweet children are born to them, and after that there appears to be no further use for them, as far as this world is concerned. Can nothing be done to strengthen their constitutions? Would a tonic be of any help to them? Not the customary tonic, I don't mean, the sort of tonic merely intended to make gouty old gentlemen feel they want to buy a hoop, but the sort of tonic for which it was claimed that three drops poured upon a ham sandwich and the thing would begin to squeak.

It struck me as pathetic, the picture of these American widows leaving their native land, coming over in shiploads to spend the rest of their blighted lives in exile. The mere thought of America, I took it, had for ever become to them distasteful. The ground that once his feet had pressed! The old familiar places once lighted by his smile! Everything in America would remind them of him. Snatching their babes to their heaving bosoms they would leave the country where lay buried all the joy of their lives, seek in the retirement of Paris, Florence or Vienna, oblivion of the past.

Also, it struck me as beautiful, the noble resignation with which they bore their grief, hiding their sorrow from the indifferent stranger. Some widows make a fuss, go about for weeks looking gloomy and depressed, making not the slightest effort to be merry. These fourteen widows--I knew them personally, all of them, I lived in the same street--what a brave show of cheerfulness they put on! What a lesson to the common or European widow, the humpy type of widow! One could spend whole days in their company--I had done it--commencing quite early in the morning with a sleighing excursion, finishing up quite late in the evening with a little supper party, followed by an impromptu dance; and never detect from their outward manner that they were not thoroughly enjoying themselves.

From the mothers I turned my admiring eyes towards the children. This is the secret of American success, said I to myself; this high- spirited courage, this Spartan contempt for suffering. Look at them! the gallant little men and women. Who would think that they had lost a father? Why, I have seen a British child more upset at losing sixpence.

Talking to a little girl one day, I enquired of her concerning the health of her father. The next moment I could have bitten my tongue out, remembering that there wasn't such a thing as a father--not an American father--in the whole street. She did not burst into tears as they do in the story-books. She said:

"He is quite well, thank you," simply, pathetically, just like that.

"I am sure of it," I replied with fervour, "well and happy as he deserves to be, and one day you will find him again; you will go to him."

"Ah, yes," she answered, a shining light, it seemed to me, upon her fair young face. "Momma says she is getting just a bit tired of this one-horse sort of place. She is quite looking forward to seeing him again."

It touched me very deeply: this weary woman, tired of her long bereavement, actually looking forward to the fearsome passage leading to where her loved one waited for her in a better land.

For one bright breezy creature I grew to feel a real regard. All the months that I had known her, seen her almost daily, never once had I heard a single cry of pain escape her lips, never once had I heard her cursing fate. Of the many who called upon her in her charming flat, not one had ever, to my knowledge, offered her consolation or condolence. It seemed to me cruel, callous. The over-burdened heart, finding no outlet for its imprisoned grief, finding no sympathetic ear into which to pour its tale of woe, breaks, we are told; anyhow, it isn't good for it. I decided--no one else seeming keen--that I would supply that sympathetic ear. The very next time I found myself alone with her I introduced the subject.

"You have been living here in Dresden a long time, have you not?" I asked.

"About five years," she answered, "on and off."

"And all alone," I commented, with a sigh intended to invite to confidence.

"Well, hardly alone," she corrected me, while a look of patient resignation added dignity to her piquant features. "You see, there are the dear children always round about me, during the holidays."

"Besides," she added, "the people here are real kind to me; they hardly ever let me feel myself alone. We make up little parties, you know, picnics and excursions. And then, of course, there is the Opera and the Symphony Concerts, and the subscription dances. The dear old king has been doing a good deal this winter, too; and I must say the Embassy folks have been most thoughtful, so far as I am concerned. No, it would not be right for me to complain of loneliness, not now that I have got to know a few people, as it were."

"But don't you miss your husband?" I suggested.

A cloud passed over her usually sunny face. "Oh, please don't talk of him," she said, "it makes me feel real sad, thinking about him."

But having commenced, I was determined that my sympathy should not be left to waste.

"What did he die of?" I asked.

She gave me a look the pathos of which I shall never forget.

"Say, young man," she cried, "are you trying to break it to me gently? Because if so, I'd rather you told me straight out. What did he die of?"

"Then isn't he dead?" I asked, "I mean so far as you know."

"Never heard a word about his being dead till you started the idea," she retorted. "So far as I know he's alive and well."

I said that I was sorry. I went on to explain that I did not mean I was sorry to hear that in all probability he was alive and well. What I meant was I was sorry I had introduced a painful subject.

"What's a painful subject?"

"Why, your husband," I replied.

"But why should you call him a painful subject?"

I had an idea she was getting angry with me. She did not say so. I gathered it. But I had to explain myself somehow.

"Well," I answered, "I take it, you didn't get on well together, and I am sure it must have been his fault."

"Now look here," she said, "don't you breathe a word against my husband or we shall quarrel. A nicer, dearer fellow never lived."

"Then what did you divorce him for?" I asked. It was impertinent, it was unjustifiable. My excuse is that the mystery surrounding the American husband had been worrying me for months. Here had I stumbled upon the opportunity of solving it. Instinctively I clung to my advantage.

"There hasn't been any divorce," she said. "There isn't going to be any divorce. You'll make me cross in another minute."

But I was becoming reckless. "He is not dead. You are not divorced from him. Where is he?" I demanded with some heat.

"Where is he?" she replied, astonished. Where should he be? At home, of course." I looked around the luxuriously-furnished room with its air of cosy comfort, of substantial restfulness.

"What home?" I asked.

"What home! Why, our home, in Detroit."

"What is he doing there?" I had become so much in earnest that my voice had assumed unconsciously an authoritative tone. Presumably, it hypnotised her, for she answered my questions as though she had been in the witness-box.

"How do I know? How can I possibly tell you what he is doing? What do people usually do at home?"

"Answer the questions, madam, don't ask them. What are you doing here? Quite truthfully, if you please." My eyes were fixed upon her.

"Enjoying myself. He likes me to enjoy myself. Besides, I am educating the children."

"You mean they are here at boarding-school while you are gadding about. What is wrong with American education? When did you see your husband last?"

"Last? Let me see. No, last Christmas I was in Berlin. It must have been the Christmas before, I think."

"If he is the dear kind fellow you say he is, how is it you haven't seen him for two years?"

"Because, as I tell you, he is at home, in Detroit. How can I see him when I am here in Dresden and he is in Detroit? You do ask foolish questions. He means to try and come over in the summer, if he can spare the time, and then, of course -

"Answer my questions, please. I've spoken to you once about it. Do you think you are performing your duty as a wife, enjoying yourself in Dresden and Berlin while your husband is working hard in Detroit?"

"He was quite willing for me to come. The American husband is a good fellow who likes his wife to enjoy herself."

"I am not asking for your views on the American husband. I am asking your views on the American wife--on yourself. The American husband appears to be a sort of stained-glass saint, and you American wives are imposing upon him. It is doing you no good, and it won't go on for ever. There will come a day when the American husband will wake up to the fact he is making a fool of himself, and by over- indulgence, over-devotion, turning the American woman into a heartless, selfish creature. What sort of a home do you think it is in Detroit, with you and the children over here? Tell me, is the American husband made entirely of driven snow, with blood distilled from moonbeams, or is he composed of the ordinary ingredients? Because, if the latter, you take my advice and get back home. I take it that in America, proper, there are millions of real homes where the woman does her duty and plays the game. But also it is quite clear there are thousands of homes in America, mere echoing rooms, where the man walks by himself, his wife and children scattered over Europe. It isn't going to work, it isn't right that it should work."

"You take the advice of a sincere friend. Pack up--you and the children--and get home."

I left. It was growing late. I felt it was time to leave. Whether she took my counsel I cannot say. I only know that there still remain in Europe a goodly number of American wives to whom it is applicable.

[The end]
Jerome K Jerome's essay: Is The American Husband Made Entirely Of Stained Glass